The biggest loser in the bike trail debate: The citizens of Rappahannock County

This newspaper has not taken an editorial opinion on the merits of the Schools Connector, and we will not. But, sadly, we feel Rappahannock County and its citizens are huge losers from the tenor of the debate surrounding the project. Simply put, disinformation, fear mongering and anger played far too large a role in the trail controversy.

We respect the many fine people on both sides who voiced heartfelt opinions against and for the Schools Connector. But we reject the loudest voices of a small group of trail opponents who stoked unnecessary fears that divided the community.

For instance, at both public hearings, one citizen spoke with heartfelt concern that the trail would take part of her sister’s yard. No private land would have been seized to make way for the trail, which would have run through VDOT right of ways and school property.

And there was repeated insinuation that the grant money involved could be used for other genuine needs in the county, such as fire and rescue funding. While this and other needs are real, it was an apples and oranges argument. The VDOT money was specifically designated for a Schools Connector-type trail, either here or elsewhere in the state. It couldn’t have been used for other purposes.

Could the RappTrails group and its supporters have done things differently? Yes, of course. Seeking more community input from the outset might have made the project feel more inclusive.

But left unsaid — though quite apparent — is that some of the most vocal trail opponents simply didn’t like the source of the trail idea. For them, this quickly — and purposefully — became an “us” and “them” issue, where these dividers sought to split the community by stoking a class schism. The tired “come here” vs. “been here” rhetoric also popped up again.

There was too much anger in the high school auditorium during both bike trail hearings. The self-appointed vanguards of the community are loud, and they are good at whipping up a frenzy. Sound familiar? Funny, it seems to be happening a lot in recent years.

But is this how we want our public dialogue to transpire? Hopefully not.

Beyond the natural beauty of Rappahannock County, a defining characteristic of our home is a generosity of spirit, where neighbors really do help their neighbors. People from vastly different life experiences live and work together for the good of their fellow citizens, from the volunteer fire and rescue squads to the Food Pantry.

We’re not a community at each other’s throats. Let’s debate the merits of ideas and leave behind the ugliness that tainted the bike trail debate. We’re too good of a place to go down this path again.

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